The title of the film “Like Father, Like Son” might lead you to think its as banal and thoughtless as the clichéd phrase from which it derives its name. That couldn’t be farther from the truth about the movie, however. Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s masterfully observed and delicately realized familial drama is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever had the privilege to see.
Hirokazu begins with a somewhat well-established premise of nature vs. nature, but there’s nothing familiar about where he ultimately takes us in “Like Father, Like Son.” The lives of two families, the wealthy Nonomiyas and the working-class Saikis, are upended when it is revealed that their six-year-old sons were switched in the hospital.
Where to go from there presents the first of many wrenching dilemmas faced by the characters. As their comfortable patterns of life are shattered, everyone affected is forced to rethink what exactly it means to be a parent and a child. To be fair, it’s more about what it means to be a father, although that shouldn’t preclude any gender from grappling with the questions raised by the film.
Hirokazu focuses mainly on the slow evolution of thinking that takes place for Nonomiya family patriarch Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama). He and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) have worked hard to provide their son (or at least a child they thought was their son) Keita all the best opportunities that can be afforded a child in Japan. Often times for Ryota, though, this means enabling Keita’s future by putting in long hours of laborious work while Midori does the dirty work of parenting.
Keita becomes almost like a project to Ryota, a significant investment of time, capital, and energy that he wants to pay off in the long run as a matter of personal pride. In that sense, “Like Father, Like Son” ought to resonate plenty with the high-class American audiences who will (sadly) most likely be the only audience for this film. (At least in this form – DreamWorks has commissioned an American remake that should garner a few more eyeballs.) To him, a child is someone to be loved, for sure, but it is also something to be applauded, like a stock or a garden.
Needless to say, he receives a bit of a rude wake-up call when blood work shows Keita is not his son and all he has cultivated will be turned over, perhaps to be undone, to the Saiki family. Ryota’s biological son, Ryusei, does not necessarily take well to the highly regimented system he has in place. He’s used to the boots-on-the-ground parenting practiced by Yudai (Rirî Furankî) at the Saiki home – a style instantly embraced by Keita. Soon, Ryota isn’t quite sure who he thinks is his son. But on a more frightening level, it is entirely possible that neither boy would consider him a father.
The crises of identity resulting from redefined roles causes much psychological turmoil for all involved, yet Hirokazu keeps “Like Father, Like Son” remarkably even-keeled. The film never feels anything other than calm and assured. Even when dealing with complex issues such as class differences and social reproduction, Hirokazu never seems to sweat. He knows the issues he wishes to explore through the story, and he communicates them so cogently that they reverberate in our own minds long after the film is over.
Like any great artist, Hirokazu is in the business of raising questions, not answering them for us. What makes his film particularly miraculous, though, is the way it provides evidence for just about any conclusion that can be drawn. “Like Father, Like Son” is not a film meant to be watched again and again to find the “real” meaning; it’s supposed to be pondered in our own heads and then discussed with others.
Even Hirokazu’s deepest intentions could be deciphered from the film, I don’t think I would want to know what they were. “Like Father, Like Son” is a rich text that should not be bound by some narrow set of meanings. It is far more valuable as a springboard for profound personal meditation on serious subjects. A /